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Teaching about religion

Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

Teaching About Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards
Curricular resource material in Finding Common Ground

Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum

10 suggestions for teaching about religion

By Warren Nord, director, Program in Humanities and Human Values, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  1. Religion is important; a central purpose of liberal education is to teach students about the place of religion in history and culture. The religious significance of curricular material (historical events and themes, literary texts, etc.) is an important criterion to use in selecting what is to be covered.
  2. Many events, movements, and texts are open to conflicting interpretations (both secular and religious). Teachers should be sensitive to religious ways of understanding them.
  3. The First Amendment requires that teachers be neutral regarding religion and religious ways of understanding the world; they are neither to promote nor denigrate religion.
  4. I would argue that the spirit of the First Amendment also requires that teachers be fair in their treatment of religion. Indeed, we are morally and intellectually obligated to be fair in dealing with any important, controversial matter. In an ideal world this means:

    1. Taking each of the (major) parties to the conflict seriously.
    2. Letting each party speak for itself through primary source material or guest speakers.
    3. Providing sufficient time and context so that positions are intelligible.
    4. Pursuing emotional as well as intellectual meaning (through literature, drama, art, film, etc.).
    5. Fairness does not require equal time.

  5. There should be no official conclusions. (This does not mean that a teacher should not share her own views.) Students should not be required to agree with the teacher in class or on tests. It is often best to ask not what students think, but what various religious groups think: Why do liberals believe that the Bible is not inerrant? Why do fundamentalists believe that abortion is wrong?
  6. That there are no official conclusions does not mean that there are no right answers. Neither fairness nor the First Amendment require us to embrace relativism. Education is an initiation of an ongoing discussion about the truth.
  7. Particular sensitivity must be shown to children who come from minority faiths, ethnic backgrounds, etc.
  8. Age is important; critical thinking and the ability to confront ambiguity and cultural conflict come with maturity.
  9. If matters are very controversial, parents should be informed and teachers should consider instituting an excusal policy.
  10. Some things may be too controversial.




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